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The

Teaching Methods
of
\

Zez Confrey

By Molly .T rent

Falk Seminar

Sprjng, 1991

THE TEACHING METHODS OF ZEZ CONFREY

While Zez Confrey has been widely acclaimed as a


pianist and composer, he has not been credited as
teacher of a piano style known as novelty piano.
Advertisements on sheet music dating from the 1920s
announce: "Ten fascinatingly, interesting lessons" by
Zez Confrey.

This evidence leads one to believe

Confrey had a definite teaching method for this genre.


Personal copies of the previously mentioned sheet
music, published by Jack Mills, have provided the basis for this endeavor. A copy of Ten Lessons, by Zez
Confrey has been located in the Library of Congress.
This text will serve as the focal point for this study.
Research in the Captain John Smith Library and
scholars of Confrey and third stream jazz will add
secondary written and oral information to this primary source.
Proving that Confrey's method existed reveals an
overlooked but important aspect of Confrey's contribution to American music.

Defining Confrey's

method adds a new dimension to the study of ragtime


p1ano.
Molly M. Trent
Music 490
Spring 1991

The Teaching Methods of Zez Confrey


Pianist and composer Zez Confrey achieved great fame in the early 1900s for his musical
contributions in the field of novelty piano playing. Although Confrey studied to be a concert
pianist, he felt most at home with jazz. Confrey began to develop his style of piano jazz during the
period in which ragtime was at its peak. Though the word 'novelty' had appeared in the titles of
several popular ragtime works by composers such as Scott Joplin and Clarence Wood, it was not
until the 1918 release of Confrey's My Pet that the novelty genre was fully established. The term,
'novelty' referred to a style of piano music which was based on jazz. Its characteristics were drawn
from several sources including folk ragtime and impressionistic music.1 It is widely known that
Confrey' s popularity grew in conjunction with novelty piano playing. It was only a matter of three
years after the release of My Pet that Confrey published what would become his best known work,

Kitten on the Keys. This widely acclaimed piece would be followed by many more novelty works
including'You Tell'em Ivories (1921), Greenwich Witch (1921), Coaxing the Piano (1922), and Nickel in

the Slot (1923). It is clearly seen that Confrey had a gift for the composition of novelty music. What
has been overlooked, however, is his method of teaching this style of piano playing.
Ad vertisem~nts on sheet music dating from the early 1920s announce: "Another Zez Confrey
triumph! Ten lessons for piano by Zez Confrey. His series of ten fascinatingly interesting lessons
will develop your technical skill to ~ wonderful degree." 2 Further re~earch uncovers information

-mentioning an instruction book published by Confrey, specifically designed to teach novelty piano
playing. This publication, Zez Confrey's Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing (1923), "told all the
'tricks of the trade,' and sold 150,000 copies in the first two months of publitation."3 In examining
Confrey' s Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing, we find that Confrey did have a definite method
for teaching novelty piano. The author identifies the object of his text in the foreword. It reads: "to
assist pianists in their embellishment of popular songs and music ... and to familiarize the pianist
with the systematic series of figures, arpeggios, etc., that harmonize with the vario~ chords most
commonly used in popular music."' Confrey accomplishes just that. His 50-page text carries the
"student" through a series of exercises from the simplest to the more complex form of novelty

scales, each demonstrated in the keys and meter in which popular music of the time was commonly
written.
Confrey begins his exercises appropriately enough in the key of C major. His first illustration
is simply the two-octave C major scale for both hands. The progression from the C major scale is

to what Confrey calls the "Novelty Scale" of C major. 4 This scale develops the independence of
hands by continuing the scale in either the right or left hand, against tied notes, or notes held for

alonger duration in the opposite hand. The hands alternate throughout the eight measure exercise
in cut-time. From that point, Confrey introduces what he calls ''Figures in the treble that can be

used when the chord of C major occurs in the bass."5 He illustrates four, separate two-measure

figures, which, in the foreword, he advises the student to memorize. These figures show ascending
and descending patterns which may be used for embellishment. Confrey notes thatthe last three
figures "are very flexible and can (with slight alteration) be used in various keys."' Confrey then
demonstrates how the figures may be used by giving a short example, still inC major. Confrey's
next step.is to introduce five new figures which may be used when the dominant seventh chord
of C major appears in the bass. These figures are much like those previously mentioned in rhythm
and harmonic progression. Again, Confrey follows the figures with two demonstrations, matching
the bass dominant-seventh root-chord oom-pah with the corresponding figures. Confrey gives
much less attention to figures to be used with the relative minor chord of C major in the bass. To
this, he only devotes one example, a four-measure series of eighth notes, containing no accidentals,

as was common in the previous figures.


At this point, Confrey introduces ''breaks." Confrey writes in his foreword, "The word
'break' is used to indicate the substitution of a piano figure for any part of a given melody." He
goes on to explain that "The chorus of a 2/4 or 4/4 popular song is generally thirty-two measures
in length and in most instances a 'break' may be used to substitute the fifteenth and sixteenth

measures." 7 Confrey then gives a very simple demonstration of a melody inC major. He follows
the guidelines smted in his foreword by creating a 32-measure melody, advising -the player to
substitute ''breaks" in measures 1;; and 16. As is characteristic of Confrey atthis juncture, he clearly
explains his intentions by illustrating that segment of the tune, showing an appropriate figure,

properly used. He also shows two more possible figures which could have been used in this
situation. In addition to the "breaks," Confrey suggests a substitute ending for the last two
measures of the piece. This ending, in the words of Confrey, is not only for this particular piece,
but "may be substituted for the last two measures of this or any similar melody inC major." 1 For
this reason, Confrey earlier suggests that such endings ''be memorized, as there are any number
of situations occurring in popular music, wherein one or more of these figures might be substituted." 9
Having mastered the key of C major, the student then progresses to the key of F major.
Confrey, by now, has established a pattern of instruction which he uses throughout the rest of his
text, with exception of the last four pages. His pattern may be defined as: (1) lllustration of the twooctave scale for both hands, (2) lllustration of the Novelty Scales for that particular key, (3)
Introduction of appropriate figures to be used in conjunction with the tonic, dominant and
sometimes relative minor chords, (4) a 32-measure melody in which ''breaks" may be used, and (5)
illustrations of these ''breaks," as well as a substitute ending. Confrey follows this pattern in the
following major keys, in their respective order: C, F, Bb, Eb, [)b, G, D, A and E. Each new lesson
presents a greater challenge to the pianist than its antecedent. While the scales, figures and Novelty
Scales appear much the same in each key, the melody given for the use of these elements gradually
increases in difficulty.
Confrey' s Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing ends with fiv~ works which make use of the
style he has presented.
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Example (1) shows the first of these: his arrangement of Auld Lang Syne, which appears in a
syncopated 2/4 meter. This is followed by a variation which shifts the melody to the left hand,
while the right hand utilizes sixteenth-note figures such as those studied throughout the text. The
tempo ~rl<ing rises from moderato to allegro moderato in the variation, and the left hand is designated marcato.
Example (2)

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Example (2) shows another interesting selection in which Confrey combines the Fisherman's

Hornpipe, for the right hand, and Yankee Doodle, for the left hand. A variation follows, which has
the pianist cross hands. This example clearly Calls for independence of hands, a goal stressed
throughout the text. The final work of the text is Confrey' s Syncopated Waltz, a new work at the time
of publication.

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Example (3) shows this composition, a longer and more complex work than previously seen in the
text, that begins in the key of Eh major, and ends with an Ah-major trio of 16 measures. Marked
presto, the Syncopated Waltz serves as a suitable closing, as its contents reflect the features of the
exercises. we find that on some occasions in the waltz, the right hand exactly matches the "figures"
shown for the key of Eh.
'

Three years after the publication of Zez Confrey's Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing,

Confrey completed yet another text, entitled Ten Lessons For Piano (1926). This publication, "For
Pupils, Teachers, Students and Pianists of the Modem School," sold for $2.50, one dollar more than
its predecessor.

10

As with his earlier text, Confrey clearly states

goal for this one, which is

- actually two-fold: "first to produce a series of less~ms that would, with proper application and
study, develop the technical ability of the student to a marked degree: and second, to embody in
each lesson sufficient musical attraction to eliminate the monotony usually associated with studies
that may have been created for a similar purpose." 11 While the purpose of this instruction seems
to be a bit different from the foregoing one, the "student" will find many of the same elements
widely used throughout the text. Among them recur the ever-present oom-pah bass, the continual
eighth or sixteenth notes, usually for the right hand, and syncopation. Concerni.n g the latter,
Confrey adds: "This series of lessons present something new, a fascinating departure, as it were,
from the 'old school,' in that the use of modem syncopation is freely employed."12 The text is

divided into ten lessons, each with a specific purpose in mind.


Lesson I, entitled "Simple Introductory Lesson" is divided into two parts. As seen in Example
(4), it begins with a 16-measure example in cut-time, containing the usual root-chord oom-pah bass
for the left hand, and a right-hand part which incorporates syncopation by the progression of a

quarter-note-half-note-quarter-note through each measure.


Example (4)
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Confrey instucts the student to memorize this particular example. It is also interesting to note that
just before his first lesson, Confrey gives the following general ad vice: "When playing the exercises
in this book, be sure that the fingers are curved and the arms and wrists relaxed." 13 Part One's

example is followed by two exercises, incorporating the same theme and basic harmony. Exercise
I challenges the right hand with a series of eighth notes to follow, while the second exercise gives
the melody to the left hand. Part II is structured the same as Part I, consisting of a short example,

followed by two exercises. Confrey gives specific instructions to the student. He advises that the
examples for Part I and Part II be memorized, and their respective exercises should be practiced
20 times daily. Parts I and II of Lesson I serve to introduce the player to the different elements of
popular music.
As the player progresses to Lesson II, he finds a new source of musical content, the
Charleston. Confrey begins Lesson II be explaining the Charleston as "a syncopated rhythm in
(cut) time, consisting of two accented beats to a measure; the accents falling on the first beat and
on the eighth note just before the second beat."(p. 8) Ten two-measure examples follow, and the
player is instructed to "Practice the following ten examples until you are thoroughly familiar with
them."(p. 8) Each example successively builds up to the tenth, in which the student is finally
playing the Charleston in both hands. A basic 16-measure example follows. From this point, the
lesson is structured in the same pattern as Lesson I. The lesson is divided into two parts, each with

two exercises. The exercises are numbered consecutively throughout the text, labeling those
included in Lesson II as Exercises 5 through 8. Again, the exercises serve to develop material used
in the Part I example. In Exercise 5, the melody is carried in the left hand, while the right hand
maintains a Charleston rhythm. Exercise 6 simply reverses the procedure. The example for Part
II of the same lesson is written with the Charleston for both hands. Exercises 7 and 8, which follow

the example, contain a variation for the right hand and a variation for the left hand, respectively.

In each case, the Charleston is played in the opposite hand.


It may be observed by Lesson ill, entitled "Variation for the Right hand," that the examples

and exercises are increasing in their level of difficulty.(p. 13) In this lesson, the usual16-measure
example which Confrey advises the player to memorize, has been doubled in length. The key
signature, which, up until this lesson, has been inC major, now moves to Eh major. The Exercises
for Lesson ill, this time only one each for Part I and II, are also longer and the student is given new
instructions to "Play very slowly at first, gradually increasing in speed."(p. 14)
Lesson IV serves as a companion to Lesson III, as it presents ''Variations for the Left hand." (p.
17) Parts I and II begin with an example, each followed by two exercises, this time in the key ofF

major. Lesson V combines the two previous lessons by incorporating variations for both hands.
Exercises 15, 16, 17 ~nd 18 contain a great deal of chromaticism, for which Confrey provides specific
fingering. Lesson V concludes with Exercise 18: chromatic scales for each hand, played in
contrasting motion.
Another area which Confrey covers is that of c!ossing hands. This technique is the focus of
Lesson VI. Confrey's lesson begins with four, four-measure examples, in the keys of C, F, Bh and
Eh major, respectively. Once the player is familiar with these simple hand.:crossing examples, he
is presented Parts I and II, as seen in preceding lessons, each with one exercise. Both exercises in

Lesson VI (Exercises 19 and 20), contain instructions to ''Practice legato and staccato."(p. 28)
Having covered the Charleston, variations for both hands and hand-crossing, Confrey introduces "Waltz Rhythms", as well as the new key of Ah major, in Lesson VII. (p. 32) 1fte examples
and exercises, all in 3 I 4 meter, decrease in length compared to those directly preceding Lesson VII.
Previous practices, however, are retained in this lesson. Exercise 21 contains "Melody in the Left

10

hand; Variation in the Right hand,"(p. 33), while Exercise 23 is called a "Cross-hand Variation."
(p. 34)

Lesson VIII vividly echoes Confrey's Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing, his earlier text.
Titled "Miscellaneous," this seems to be an appropriate chance forConfrey to display the style for

which was so famous. (p. 36) Though the example for Part I contains nothing new, Exercise 24
announces a ''Variation with 'Breaks'."(p. 37) As was so common is his previous text, Exercise 24
is the only place in Confrey's Ten Lessons in which 'breaks' are mentioned. The 32-measure piece
in filled with figures identical to those shown in his ''Novelty'' instruction book. Part two of Lesson

VITI even contains a "Novelette," in the key of Ab major. (p. 38) The piece, containing all the typical

musical characteristics of his Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing acts as his signature for the text.
The oom-pah bass, syncopation and rapid ascension-descension of the right hand are all abundant
throughout the work.
To conclude his text, Confrey strays from his structural pattern observed in Lessons I through
VIII. "Lessons nine and ten", he says, "constitute a fantasy for the piano, and are designed to
illustrate the contrast between the classical form of music and the so-called 'jazz'."14 For Lesson IX,
he composed what he titles "Fantasy (Classical)," shown in Example (5). (p. 40)
Example (5) .
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In this rather lengthy work, Confrey presents his version of a fantasy in the style of the Romantic

era. The work is in a minor key, an instance which, up until this point, had not occurred in either
of the texts discussed. The main difference between the works lies in the very beginning. The
'classical' piece begins with a section which appears freer in nature, as if almost an introduction.
(p. 40) The music is depicted in smaller notation, perhaps suggesting the notes are of lesser
importance than those to follow. It appears as though the piece does not~actually begin until the
fifth measure, where the tempo is marked Andante con moto. The first four measures of the
"classical" fantasy, which occupy three scroes, are in common time. The meter then changes to 2/

4.
Lesson X provides a striking contrast to Lesson IX. This last lesson is illustrated in Example
(6).

12

Example (6)

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The tempo indication, Allegro moderato, appears at the very beginning, giving the impression that
the first notes are just as important as the rest of the work. Furthermore, what Confrey stretches
through two long measures in the "classical" example, he divides into eight, precise measures in
the "jazz" arrangement. The meter remains in cut-time throughout the entire work. What may be
observed in both pieces is Confrey' s use of a descending line for the right hand. As seen in the first
score of each piece, this closely resembles Confrey's "figures" from his Novelty Piano Playing text.
Zez Con frey's Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing, and his Ten Lessons for Piano may have
different aims, but the basic content found in each is very similar. There runs through each text a
strong current of syncopation, and the need to develop independence of hands as well as improvisational skills. For years, Confrey's name has been synonymous with Novelty piano and his many
works are mentioned in numerous articles, corroborating not only his fame but his genuine talent
for composing works of this genre. We now know, however, that Confrey's talents lay not only in
performing and composing. To those outstanding accomplishments, we can add a new dimension:
Zez Co~ey as teacher.

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ENDNOTES
loavid Thomas Roberts, 'Novelty Piano," The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, (London:
Macmillan Press Limited, 1986), Ill, 397.
2J.L. Molloy, Love's Old Sweet Song (New York: Jack Mills, Inc., 1924) All located compositions and
texts by Zez Confrey were published by Jack Mills, Inc.
3Amy Howard Cluthe and Joan Howard Kutscher, Our American Music: A Comprehensive History
from 1620 to the Present, Fourth Edition, (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965), 752.
4Zez Confrey, Zez Confrey's Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing, (New York: Jack Mills, Inc.,
1923), 6.

Sfbid.
6Jbid .
7fbid., Foreword.

8Ibid., 9.
9Ibid., Foreword.

lOzez Confrey, Ten Lessons For Piano, (New York: Jack Mills, Inc. 1926), title page.
llfbj d., Foreword.

l2[bid.
l3Jbid., 4. Subsequent page references will be inserted parenthetically into the text wherever
appropriate.
14fbid., Foreword.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cluthe, Amy Howard and Kutscher, Joan Howard. Our American Music: A
Comprehensive History from 1620 to the Present. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell
Company, 1965.
Confrey, Zez. Ten Lessons For Piano. New York: Jack Mills, Inc., 1926.

_ _ _ _ . Zez Confrey's Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing. New York: Jack
Mills, Inc., 1923.

Molloy, J.L. Love's Old Sweet Song. New York: Jack Mills, Inc., 1924.
Roberts, David Thomas. "Novelty Piano," The New Grove Dictionary of American Music.
London: Macmillan Press Limited, 1986.

Trent/Zez Confrey

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